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Three leadership lessons I learned from building a company culture

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What is company culture?

It’s a massive question. And one whose answer depends entirely on which leader you ask.

Personally, I believe culture lives on the softer edge of values and beliefs. It’s more about hearts and minds than rules and processes. What values do people stand by? How does it feel to be part of this community?

Finding the answers to those questions is where the real power lies, and when you’re trying to build a culture based on values and beliefs it changes the kind of leader you need to be.

Openness, transparency and authenticity are more important than commanding from the top. This lets you to show vulnerability too, because if people can’t relate to you they won’t want to follow you.

None of this is easy to achieve, of course, but I want to share what has and hasn’t worked for me so that it might help you build your own culture and work out your leadership style.

Here are the three most important things I’ve learned:

1. Every company is different, but some things are consistent

I’ve always said you can’t take a successful leader at one company, put them in a different company and expect them to achieve the same success with the same approach. Every situation is unique, and the same goes for company culture and the steps you have to take to build the right one for your team.

But if you agree with me, that culture is about values and belief, there are some consistencies in the way you can build and maintain it.

Win hearts and minds first 

The first six or seven years I spent trying to build this culture at Vodafone for Business, I stuck to that traditional corporate formula: incrementally improving on the previous year’s results.

But when I moved into Enterprise Operations three years ago, the team were in a crisis position and we had to act fast. We needed something authentic and relevant enough to inspire people to go on the journey we needed them to go on.

The situation needed more than the traditional formula, and we decided to begin with our team identity: The Red Line.

My belief was that if we won the hearts and minds of our people first, everything else would follow. That approach has since proved incredibly successful: would we be where we are now if we’d only started with frameworks and KPIs? I honestly don’t think so.

Make everything as simple as it can be

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Well, Probably the biggest learning experience for me in all my time at Vodafone, maybe even my career, has been the importance of simplicity.

When we began with The Red Line, we were running a 24/7 operation for some of the world’s largest corporates, across multiple countries and cultures largely underpinned at the time by legacy technology.

On paper it was obvious our business was not where it needed to be. But looking back, our decision to consistently simplify what good would look like and what outcomes we needed was crucial.

When I say simplifying, I mean we went from having hundreds of pages about thousands of performance data points to saying we’re now going to talk about three KPIs: first contact resolution (FCR), resolved within service level agreement (RiSLA) and mean time to resolve (MTTR). And that’s it.

From that point, our people were crystal clear on the outcomes we needed them to produce.

Encourage communication

I’ve talked about the importance of simplification, but equally important is how you communicate this culture shift with your people. Today, I’m a huge advocate of using internal messaging platforms to help achieve that, to the point where they actually become an integral part of your culture. 

When we launched The Red Line three years ago, we invited everyone to meet on our internal social media platform.

But we asked them to talk about the big topics impacting them using one of three hashtags: our customers (#WeCARE), how we’re simplifying our world (#TheSimpleThings) and sharing our successes (#BeProud).

By giving people that bit of clear direction we got some incredibly valuable content. In fact, we’re still referring back to some of it years later.

That kind of success only comes when people feel comfortable communicating on your chosen platforms. That meant my leadership team and I had to be visible on our internal social media platform from the beginning, embedding ourselves into that community and reassuring people they were safe to air their views freely.

2. Always guide but never rule

I’ve spent a lot of time making sure people feel comfortable speaking their mind within the team, and I’ve built up a reputation for someone who genuinely wants to listen and take action when I can.

As a result, people are very open with me, to the point where they might tell me: “I don’t think we should be doing things this way.”

Even then, they’re sometimes surprised when I reply, “Well don’t do it that way then. Go do it how you think it should be done!”

Having that level of trust in people to do the right thing isn’t easy. In fact, it can be quite frightening at first.

I struggled with delegation in the early days of my management career, probably in part because I came from a finance background where you need to have strict control over everything.

But in a business as big as Vodafone you quickly learn you’ll never be a successful leader unless you can trust people. And you might never be able to do that unless you cultivate a culture of ownership. Those were the two values we used as the basis of The Red Line.

The way you get over that initial fear is to create a framework for the way you want people to behave – not a prescriptive set of rules but the boundaries you don’t want them to cross.

Think of it as a minimum standard: for the leaders who work for me that means being honest, authentic, engaging with people, showing empathy and having vision.

I set those boundaries, point them in the right direction, but how they actually do their job is the point when I back off.

Ultimately you have to learn to let go of some of the detail, or the sheer complexity of it all will overwhelm you. It took me a long time to realise that, but now it’s the only way I operate.

3. How to know when it’s working

As I mentioned previously, culture is not just about KPIs. Those are important: you have to know whether you’re having an impact on the business, and things like employee surveys can give you some of those answers.

But to know whether you’re really building and maintaining the culture you want, you have to focus on things less tangible than numbers on a spreadsheet.

The things I don’t see, tell me just as much as the things I do see, if not more.

I don’t see hundreds of customer escalations every month, for example, which tells me people are taking ownership of problems so I don’t have to.

What I do see is far more people proactively improving things for each other and our customers.

We run an improvement programme as part of The Red Line, where we empower people to identify problems and then give them the space, time and resource to come up with a solution.

Once people started sharing their successes through the hashtags I mentioned earlier, the programme took off. Improvements were coming in two, three or even four times a week from all over the world.

This is just one example, of course. But it’s one of many. And the fact our community has taken on a life of its own is probably the thing I’m proudest of when I look at the culture we’ve built.


Always looking forwards

While I’m proud of how far we’ve come, this is the digital age and the pace of change is too fast to spend time basking in past successes. So I’m always thinking about the future and what’s going to be relevant in the coming years and beyond. Not only for businesses, but also for leaders who want to be successful.

As far as running a business goes, every leader is going to have to be a technologist. No question. If you’re not technical enough to keep up with new developments your business will stand a much greater risk of disruption. And that applies across any industry I can think of.

And of course, future leaders will need to be innovators, given no sector is safe from the threat of disruption if the companies within it fail to adapt.

They’ll also need to be futurists, focussing more on what’s happening out there in the world and how that might change in the coming years rather than only focusing on internal issues.

Finally, they’ll have to be humanitarians. People want to know they’re doing more with their lives than simply putting money in the pockets of shareholders, and as leaders we need to appreciate that.

All this leads to the challenge I’m currently facing:

I’ve spent the last three years building a culture that works for our business in the current world. Now I need to make sure it remains relevant for the next three.

What leadership skills and styles do you think are necessary to build and sustain a culture in your own organisation?

What advice would you give to other leaders?

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